Sphere, London, 1983
The blurb on the back:
The Mark of the Beast ...
'Chilling .. an uncompromising examination of evil ... terrifying.' - The Times
Lucius Rumsey is an itinerant preacher who's reached a crisis in his faith. Tormented by the degenerate savagery of modern America and convinced that too many words have been spilt in the name of the Lord, he decides that the time has come for an end to preaching. So he resolves that he'll get a full-size wooden cross made, and then walk coast-to-coast carrying it: no words, no sermons, just a sign for the people. What will happen, he has no idea - he just wants to put himself in the hands of God, almost as a test of his own faith more than anything else. Unfortunately he gets caught up in a series of random and meaningless murders that precludes his symbolic journey, even whilst proving the vital need for such a statement.
That's the set-up and my question is this: who the hell writes the blurbs for these books? Not somebody who's ever read the damn things, that's for sure. Rumsey is not 'fanatical' and he is not 'obsessed with evil and the sins of the flesh.' Well, he may be obsessed with evil, but that's pretty much in the job description if you're going to be a preacher (unless you're in the Church of England, of course). In fact, his response to the horrors of the world is perfectly coherent and sane: the pilgrimage idea is a bit curious, but his motivation is sound as a bell.
Furthermore, while we're on the subject of those sleeve-notes, the death of the carpenter's son is not 'a warning of the bloodbath to come'; in fact there have already been four murders. And what on earth is the Sunday Telegraph talking about with that 'sufficiency of explicit sex'? There ain't no sex in the whole book.
So, ignore everything on the back, ignore the rubbish cover art, ignore the fact that it's published by Sphere - just get hold of a copy and lap it up. 'Cos this is great: one of the bleakest novels of the '80s, it depicts a small community ripped apart and degraded by senseless violence and despair, with even the murderers entirely joyless in their pursuit of kicks. Deeply pessimistic about the human condition, it avoids the trite dichotomy of pitting small-town America against the evil of the modern world. Wonderful stuff.
Incidentally, I don't think it really counts as horror, but that's how Sphere choose to market the thing over here. Mind you, in America it got nominated for an Edgar Award and it don't fit in there either.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 4/5